ATLANTA -- The Toronto Raptors won’t accept your compliments. Marvel at the 126 points they dropped on the Atlanta Hawks on Thanksgiving eve, and they’ll squawk about the 115 they gave up at the other end. There’s even a cognitive dissonance to the Raptors’ language, as head coach Dwane Casey twice said after the game that his team “kept grinding it out.”
Coach Casey, we just witnessed your team leave burn marks on the floor at Philips Arena. There was nothing remotely grind-ish about it. Your guys got whatever they wanted on the night. They produced clean looks out of thin air and looked great doing it. Overall, your Raps have posted nearly five points more per 100 possessions than the second-ranked offense in the East. So when you say “grind” -- twice! -- I do not think it means what you think it means.
The Raptors’ reluctance to bask in the glow of their gaudy offensive numbers is understandable. This core in Toronto has come of age with team defense as its hallmark. During his decades in the coaching ranks, Casey has developed a reputation as one of the most imaginative defensive minds in the game. In Dallas, he fashioned a scheme in which the Mavs floated from man-to-man and zone in the same possession. In Toronto, his team goes against the grain, as defenders force ball handlers to help rather than pushing them sideline and down, the prevailing trend in the league.
It’s not as if Toronto wasn’t offense oriented -- we’re talking about a team whose primary threats in recent years were Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan -- but the Raptors never won many style points when they had the ball. Kyle Lowry bowled his way to the rim, or a wing found a mismatch and went to work -- low-risk, low-turnover and, yes, grind-it-out offensive basketball.
Know what? The Raptors still run a guard-oriented offense that’s programmed to get good looks for their perimeter guys, with the ball in Lowry’s hands for the bulk of the possession. Sure, they’ll put the blossoming 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas or backup forward Patrick Patterson on the move to run interference, but this is still a straightforward scheme. But, man, it runs like clockwork.
Wanting to better understand how the Raptors have built one of the league’s most prolific offenses, I hit up Raptors reserve othersized big man Chuck Hayes after the game. A longtime Rocket whose first two coaches in the league were Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, Hayes typically has interesting stuff to share about the inner workings of a team.
“It’s nothing like what we ran under [Adelman] and it’s nothing like what we ran under Jeff Van Gundy, a lot of left-right, work both sides of the floor,” Hayes said. “We’re going to run sets where our guys can get to their sweet spots for high-percentage shots. We’re going to get DeMar a shot he works on constantly -- he’s a killer from 17 or 18 feet. His footwork is unbelievable, so we get him the ball in space.”
To better illustrate this the-right-shot-at-the-right-spot-for-the-right-guy offense, Hayes cited a moment when Toronto led by 10 with a little more than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. With their reserves on the floor, the Raptors ran a pick-and-roll -- the kind of action you see a few dozen times a game from each side, but this one served a specific purpose.
“This gentleman didn’t score all game, but then we run a play for him,” Hayes said, intentionally withholding the name of the player in question. “It was James Johnson. He had Kyle Korver on him. So we play to [Johnson’s] strengths. At his size, he gets the ball at the free throw line. Our spacing allowed him to make that Eurostep and beat the help. He hadn’t scored the entire game until we called that play. He’s not in rhythm, he’s got the flu, he hasn’t put up many shots. But we’re going to give him a shot at his sweet spot. That’s a high-percentage shot for us.”
This play call doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. The Raptors had examined the matchups on the floor and made note of what was available. Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams were both unconscious, which had prompted the Hawks to tighten up their perimeter defense. They threw a trap at Vasquez and, just like Hayes said, the Raps leveraged the coverage.
There’s nothing specifically novel about this strategy. If a defense moves outside, then you move inside. If it pressures one side of the floor, you reverse the ball to the other. This is what NBA teams do on a nightly basis.
But as the first month of the season comes to a close, the Raptors have elevated pragmatism to an art form. They’ve taken several imperfect offensive pieces, identified what each one does best, and tripled-down on that skill. “Everyone stays in their lane,” as Casey likes to say. That might lack the flair of his innovative defenses, but discipline is its own kind of creativity. And right now, the Raptors have created something beautiful in its simplicity.